Mmm, whipped cream... it may not be as celebrated as the proverbial "cherry on top," but it certainly makes a decadent addition to cakes, coffees, teas and other treats. Learn all about this sweet, fluffy condiment, including what it's made from, how to make it, what differentiates it from whipped toppings, how to use it and more.
What Is Whipped Cream, Anyway?
Whipped cream is heavy cream that has been beaten until it is light and fluffy. It may be beaten with (in order from easiest to hardest) a mixer, a whisk or a fork. Whipped cream is often sweetened (usually with confectioner's sugar, which dissolves easily in the cream and does not leave a grainy texture) and it is sometimes flavored with vanilla. Whipped cream that has been flavored with vanilla is often called Chantilly cream or crème Chantilly. It is a very rich, foamy dairy product that adds lots of flavor to a wide range of foods and drinks, such as a frosting for cakes, a spread for "cookie sandwiches" and scones or a topping for hot chocolate and other sweet drinks.
Perhaps more than anything else, what makes whipped cream unique is its texture. It forms soft, light peaks that are higher than many dairy products. This is because it is made with heavy cream, which has a higher butterfat content (at least 30 percent). You see, when you whip heavy cream, air is forced into the liquid and (thanks to the high fat content) a stable mass of bubbles forms. It's basically that the fat in the cream forms little air pockets throughout the mixture, and keeps them stabilizes them with its heft. Each air pocket is encircled by a thin film of water with proteins and other substances dissolved in it. In total, the volume of whipped cream is double that of the cream used to make it, all because of its many, tiny air bubbles.
Using a lower-fat product (such as low-fat cream) causes the resulting food (or, more correctly, drink) to be thin and watery, or unstable. For example, whole milk CAN create foam when whipped, but it doesn't hold up as long or form as strong of peaks because its fat content is so much lower.
Canned Whipped Cream
Canned whipped cream (or whipped creams in pressurized cans) are typically packaged with nitrous oxide as a propellant. The nitrous oxide actually 'whips' the cream as it comes out of the can, so it makes fresh whipped cream on the spot. Other advantages to canned whipped cream include its ease of 'preparation' (if you can even call it that--you literally shake the can and push a button on the nozzle to 'make' it), its standardization (unless it's rancid, it will taste pretty much exactly the same every time) and its frothiness (it's foamier than most homemade whipped cream, and, some say, richer).
However, there are some distinct downsides to canned whipped cream, too:
- Whipped cream is at its very best when it is made with fresh cream, and the fresher the cream, the better it tastes. Buying it in a can makes it less likely that it will be fresh, and thus less likely that it will be awesome.
- Canned whipped cream often contains added ingredients, such as preservatives, artificial flavors, and stabilizers, so it's not as natural as homemade whipped cream. Worse yet, it can have a nasty, metallic taste if it is heavily stabilized and not very fresh.
- Whipped cream in a can is often more expensive than the 'real thing' (even though it isn't as good by most accounts!).
- And, finally, since it is made with pressurized gas rather than a stronger whipping action, it tends to 'go flat' and dissolve back into liquid much faster than real whipped cream, making it pretty much impossible to use if you want to prepare a dish in advance or eat leftovers that don't look terrible.
So, as you can see, homemade whipped cream really is better! If you really want the convenience of a can, you could buy a reusable canister that lets you make whipped cream at the (shake of a can and) press of a button. (I own one and it's more useful than you might guess. You can use it to make all kinds of foams and such. And, more importantly, unlike with regular canned whipped cream you can control the ingredients, their quality level, and their amounts when you make whipped cream this way.) However, it's really not that difficult to make homemade whipped cream (as you'll see below).
Whipped Cream vs. Whipped Topping
Now that you know all about canned whipped cream, I probably don't need to convince you of the inferiority of 'whipped topping'... but if you feel like being a little horrified, read on!
Sometimes, people confuse whipped cream with so-called “whipped toppings.” These products are usually sold in the refrigerator or freezer section of grocery stores in large, plastic tubs. Whereas whipped cream is usually made with only heavy cream, sugar and (optionally) vanilla (for flavor) and gelatin (as a stabilizer), whipped toppings often contain a cream substitute of some sort (usually nasty stuff you;d never cook with at home), more sugar than real whipped cream (or, worse yet, chemical-y sugar substitutes) and lots of added flavorings (often artificial) and stabilizers (also often artificial).
Whipped toppings are generally regarded as far less tasty and more expensive than real, homemade whipped cream. To reiterate, if you have never made your own whipped cream before, I highly recommend trying it--you won’t go back to the tubs of fake stuff ever again!
How to Make Whipped Cream
To make whipped cream, heavy cream is usually whipped with a whisk, an electric or hand mixer, or (with some serious wrist action) a fork. Homemade whipped cream is often flavored with sugar, vanilla, coffee, chocolate, orange and other flavorings. It may also include a stabilizer (to keep it from going flat or getting runny--this is usually gelatin, but you can also use gum tragacanth or whipped egg whites. Confectioner's (icing) sugar is sometimes added in order to stiffen the mixture and to reduce the risk of over-whipping (more on that later).
For whipped cream to become fluffy and have nice peaks, the cream must have a fat content of at least 30 percent. This allows it to form air pockets (as described above in "What is Whipped Cream, Anyway?"). During preparation, as the cream starts to increase in volume, ingredients like sugar and flavorings can be added. When the cream has almost doubled in volume, it's time to stop beating; otherwise, you'll end up making butter! (No joke--I once did this accidentally. I was making a matcha-flavored whipped cream with a Cuisinart stand mixer and got distracted for a few moments too long. Whoops!)
For more specific instructions, see this comprehensive list of whipped cream recipes
What Are the Uses of Whipped Cream
Whipped cream or crème Chantilly is a popular topping for desserts and drinks. Here are some desserts for which whipped cream is commonly used as a topping or spread:
- Pies (especially pumpkin pies and chocolate pies)
- Ice creams (especially ice cream sundaes)
- Cupcakes and cakes (especially as regular whipped cream on gingerbread cake and in the form of whipped cream frosting on other cakes)
- Puddings (especially banana pudding and chocolate pudding)
- Fresh berries and fruit salads (as well as the British classic Eaton mess--one of my personal favorite uses of whipped cream!)
And here are some drinks that are made extra-decadent with a dollop of whipped cream:
- Hot chocolate
- Espresso con Panna, Caffe Lattes, and other espresso drinks
- Iced coffee drinks
- Flaming Spanish Coffee, Irish Coffee, and other coffee cocktails
- Chai and dirty chai lattes
- Hot apple cider